The Confrontation Clause: What Is It, and How Do I Use It?

The confrontation clause is a provision in the Sixth Amendment of the United State Constitution which provides that “in all criminal proceedings, the accused shall enjoy the right… to be confronted with all witnesses against him.” What this means for  the defendant is that he/she has the right to fully cross examine any and all witnesses who testify against you at trial.

This only applies at criminal proceedings. There are a very small number of cases where the defendant will not be allowed to actually see the witness, or the witness may be permitted to be examined in a room away from the defendant. One example might be where the witness is a child who suffered sexual abuse. Then the child is generally kept in a separate room and the defendant watches the testimony from closed circuit television. Face to face confrontation is preferred but it must sometimes be replaced where public policy or issues of travel prevent it.

If a statement is “testimonial” the witness must be cross examined (testimonial means it tells a story,it  offers facts for the court’s consideration).  Generally to be cross-examined the witness must be available (i.e. in court). When witness is unavailable or becomes unavailable the court should not allow the testimony to come in. The defendant may object to any questions asked where he would not be permitted to cross examine due to a lack of availability of the witness. Unavailability may be: death, loss of memory, taking the Fifth, or simply not answering the questions and refusing to cooperate.

If a witness is unavailable and the defendant had no previous opportunity to cross examine the witness, then the witness’s testimony should not be permitted at trial. If you think you have an issue where a witness is unavailable and/or full cross examination was not possible, contact your attorney, or if you are unrepresented contact this firm.

There are two exceptions to the confrontation clause:

  1. A dying declaration- where the proposed testimony is made by a person when they believe they are dying and they are subsequently unavailable for cross examination (just unavailable, not necessarily dead) then their testimony is considered truthful and it is permitted.
  2. Wrongdoing- where the defendant deliberately make the witness unavailable through some form of wrongdoing, then the defendant gives up any right to confront the witness. The key is that the wrongful act was done specifically to prevent the witness form testifying. That is a new concept I will be discussing at my other blog, within a few weeks.

All other laws must give way to the confrontation clause because it is in the constitution. This means that hearsay rules and rape shield laws will not prevent you from cross-examining a witness.

Where the information the witness would have given is non-testimonial, the confrontation clause does not apply.

Relevant expansion in Wyoming:

–          In accusations of sexual assault, the defendant is permitted to cross examine the victim about other relevant sexual activities, so long as both parties are over the age of majority. Hannon v. State.

–          A pretrial deposition by the defendant can be sufficient cross-examination of a witness such that an unavailable witness’s testimony could be given at trial. Martinez v. State.

–          Where a testimonial statement is entered, the witness must be allowed confrontation, the mere fact that the statement is given under oath or as a confession of some sort is not sufficient protection and admission of such a statement without opportunity to cross is not permissible. Vigil v. State.

Relevant expansion in Pennsylvania:

–          Pennsylvania holds differently from Wyoming and states that sufficient protection by the hearsay exceptions can remove the necessity for confrontation of the witness, even when the statements are testimonial. Commonwealth v. Carter (I believe this will be challenged at some point, but for now, it is the law in Pennsylvania)

–          The confrontation clause does not guarantee access to pretrial discovery, it is only a trial right. Commonwealth v. Herrick.

–          A trial judge retains wide latitude to determine how far cross-examination may go in the face of concerns like harassment, prejudice, confusion of the issues, witness safety, etc. Commonwealth v. Handfield.

What Constitutes Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

The Eighth Amendment of the Federal Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment; Article 1, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution reiterates this prohibition. In order to make a claim of cruel and unusual punishment, a person has to look to see if the scope of the crime matches the penalty of the punishment. An obvious example could be: the punishment for stealing a shirt from a department store is getting your hand chopped off. What is cruel and unusual is judged by the standards that ordinary people hold today, in the modern world. Therefore, what is cruel and unusual could change as standards and morals change.

Currently in Pennsylvania, cruel and unusual punishment consists of:

  • Executing a mentally retarded person or a person adjudicated legally insane (a mere mental disability is not always going to be sufficient). Atkins v. Virginia (U.S. Supreme Court); Commonwealth v. Banks.
  • Housing persons in a prison which, from both an objective and subjective point of view, denies the prisoner the “minimum of life’s civilized necessities” and where the prison officials act with deliberate indifference to the health and safety of prisoners. Neely v. Department of Corrections.
  • Punishments which are wholly and irrationally disproportionate to the crime; the prohibition is against extreme sentences which are grossly disproportionate to the crime. Commonwealth v. Yasipour.
  • Excessive fines (although what constitutes “excessive is difficult to establish and largely relies on what the statutory maximum for the crime is, and whether the amount of money sought in some way recompenses for the illegal activity). Commonwealth v. Schill.
  • Life in jail without possibility of parole or the death penalty for persons under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed. Commonwealth v. Chambers.

In Wyoming, the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, Art 1, s. 14, is phrased differently but has been held to have the same meaning as the Eighth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.

  • Treating a prisoner in a way which creates the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain contrary to contemporary standards of decency (this includes denying necessary medical and/or psychiatric help). Garnett v. Coyle.
  • Punishments which do not uphold the mandate that the penal code only mete sentences which are humane and are based on reformation and prevention of future criminal actions; the prohibition is against extreme sentences which are grossly disproportionate to the crime under the Eight Amendment as well. Oakley v. State; Dodge v. State.
  • Proportionality requires looking at 3 things: the gravity of the crime vs. the punishment, the sentences of others with similar crimes in this jurisdiction, the sentences of others with similar crimes in other jurisdictions. Smith v. State
  • Wyoming does not have a case specifically regarding execution of mentally retarded or insane persons, but has stated in dicta that it follows the prohibition against executing persons who are incapable of knowing what they did was wrong or that the person was incapable of preventing the wrong. Swazo v. State.
  • Requiring civil forfeiture may be a violation of the Eight Amendment and Wyoming Constitution under the excessive fines clause. Doles v. State.
  • Wyoming has a more stringent requirement regarding bail than the United States Constitution and requires that if possible all persons not guilty of first degree murder be given a chance to be released on bail. Simms v. Oedekoven.

What is a Seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure. Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution mimics this protection. We have discussed the basic tenants of what comprises a search, but what is a seizure?

The most basic definition of a seizure is when government meaningfully interferes with an individual’s possessory property rights or liberty. So in order to have a seizure of a person or property, there must be a meaningful interference with a person’s property or with their liberty.

What constitutes a “meaningful” interference is a fact based question. Each case which challenges the interference with property rights will have to look at cases with similar fact patterns and determine whether the court would find that interference meaningful.

For example, an additional barrel of chemicals loaded onto your truck is not a meaningful interference with your property rights. However, a stop of your vehicle without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause of wrongdoing is a meaningful interference. Any restraint on a person’s liberty by a person of authority is a seizure, and sometimes that’s lawful, and sometimes its not.

Just being a seizure isn’t enough to be objectionable in court. The protection extends only to unreasonable seizures. So the question really is: what makes a seizure unreasonable? There is a three part test the United States Supreme Court developed to evaluate reasonableness.

  1. The gravity of the public interest which will be served by the seizure
  2. The degree to which the seizure advances public interest
  3. How greatly the seizure interferes with personal liberties

Again, this is a fact based test. Each case is going to be looked at individually, although both Pennsylvania and the Supreme Court have stated that in order to pass the test, the seizure must begin with a minimum of reasonable suspicion. That is, the officers must have a reasonable suspicion that illegal activity is taking place. This suspicion must be particularized such that it can be spoken by an officer and must be individualized such that the officer can point to one or maybe two people or objects that are suspicious.

This is a general idea of the law defining your right against unreasonable seizure. Talk to your attorney today about the evidence against you, and whether it may have been a product of an unreasonable search or seizure.  Even if you have challenged the evidence at trial for being unreasonably seized, there still may be an opportunity to appeal and get the evidence removed in a new trial.

You deserve every opportunity for a great defense.